I wrote this paper during my first quarter at Pacifica Graduate Institute for the Dreams, Visions, and Myths course taught by Dr. Jacqueline Feather. This paper holds a significant amount of personal meaning to me; I have also included information relating to the significance of snakes in general within various cultures and belief systems.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and please feel free to ask any questions or offer comments!
Snakes and Transformation: Dreams and Spiritual Totem
The Snake is a powerful personal spiritual totem and one that has held significance throughout various cultures and eras. In this paper I wish to share Snake’s meaning to me, how Snake has spoken to me in dreams and visions, my personal relationship with Snake, and how Snake has been viewed in history, religion, and myth.
My conscious relationship with Snake began when I was 17 years old. I was an actively performing bellydancer and I suddenly and inexplicably felt the urge to begin dancing with a snake. I knew nothing about snakes: about their handling, their care, or their temperament. I simply felt a calling from Snake. Fortunately I had a friend who had owned several snakes over many years who was more than willing to offer me practical guidance.
After some conversation and research Jasmine was gifted into my life.
Jasmine was a red-tailed boa constrictor at the age of six months when I acquired her. She was small and delicate with a very sweet temperament. Our goal in the beginning was to develop a rapport; to become comfortable with one another. I handled her as much as possible, regardless of whatever tasks I was performing around the house or out running errands. This enabled her to become acclimated to my movements; to learn how to hold onto me without fear of being dropped; and to allow me the opportunity to understand her movements, her fears and comfort level; and to overall become attuned to her.
Over a span of 17 years Jasmine and I performed countless stage shows, TV shows, parties, and private events. She was a natural performer. By this I mean she seemed to instinctively know when we were performing. Snakes detect their surroundings predominately by energy vibrations and scent. She seemed to know when the lights were on her and when an audience was present; I believe she also detected my own energies shift into performance mode and understood what this meant as far as her role in the situation.
My dance transformed. My style developed into writhing, smooth, sensual, snakey movements. When we performed, it was I who followed Jasmine’s lead. I saw people become enchanted. My ultimate delight was to aid those who had initially been afraid of snakes become intrigued, curious and fascinated. Inevitably after every performance, those once intimidated by snakes based on misunderstanding and certain religious influences, wanted to ask questions, learn about Jasmine, touch her, and take pictures with her.
Aside from being my dance partner, Jasmine represented a part of me. Wherever she lived was home and being somewhat of a gypsy spirit, “home” was a fluid concept at times. When I was in need of reflection or solitude, I would light candles and bring Jasmine out with me to meditate or to dance. Regardless of who was in my life or transitioned out, Jasmine was my companion.
Jasmine’s accidental death in 2012 was devastating for me. It was serendipitous this happened at a time of great transition and turmoil with events during my life: I had left one relationship outside of California to pursue another with someone I held to heart as my soulmate back in Los Angeles. I wondered if her death was a sign of doom in being united with the one I had longed for. I know losing her contributed to my feelings of floundering; of not feeling grounded and centered; incapable of handling the changes in my life in a healthy manner, regardless of how much I wanted to.
It took two years before I felt ready to find another snake companion, despite how un-centered I was without that energy. I found Lamia, a baby boa of perhaps three months old. It was during this time I experienced my first snake dream:
Lamia was in her cage, the cage that had formerly belonged to Jasmine. I was watching her and saw Jasmine in the cage with her. This perplexed me, knowing that Jasmine had passed away. I moved closer and saw that Jasmine was transparent and was indeed not visiting in the physical realm, but in an ethereal realm. When I awoke from the dream it was though Jasmine’s “voice” was telling me that she approved; that it was ok to “replace” her with this new baby boa.
Tragically, Lamia did not stay in my life more than a couple of months. I felt great responsibility for her death but was assured that baby snakes are very delicate and her manner of death was unfortunately not uncommon. It saddens me to say that she was a “blip” in my life, although I believe her presence had a great impact and in fact opened up my desire for snake energy again.
Shortly thereafter I found Sahara (April 2014), a two year old sunglow boa constrictor. Sahara has been in my life approximately one year now. It seems in keeping with the spirit of Snake and Snake’s meaning to me, Sahara has visited me in dreams as well as offered me real life challenges.
Her presence in my dreams began just shortly after a tumultuous break up with my previously referenced soulmate. In both dreams with Sahara she was attacking me and trying to bite me, even to the point of aggressively following me around as I tried to escape from her. In one dream she did in fact bite me on my right hand (the significance of this to be discussed later).
Within a month in real life she became highly aggressive to the point of striking her cage whenever I walked by and making it impossible for me to feel comfortable handling her. I must point out that shortly after obtaining Sahara we performed together successfully, following along the same path Jasmine had set forth. Sahara was sweet and docile and I did not understand why this sudden change had occurred, nor what to do about it.
Shamanic friends suggested she was highly affected by the final argument that ended my relationship and by my continued energies of sadness, anger, confusion, and hurt. Sahara, also, had developed a bond with my partner which was now lost. Having witnessed a change in my dog’s behavior – which by contrast is easier to read than reptilian behavior – by the same breakup and knowing how highly sensitive snakes are, this was not an impossibility.
Before I address the more complex energetic perspectives I wish to note that I asked for assistance from an exotic animal handler friend, who, in one session, successfully helped Sahara and me in rehabilitation. I realized the reason behind this was his energy was one of confidence and calmness; he was not afraid of being bitten; he was not influenced by the aftermath of said breakup; nor any other emotional or energetic factors. Once he showed Sahara there was a calm energy present to be with her – and helped me reduce my level of fear of her – we were quickly on the road to regaining our friendly connection.
In earth-based traditions and belief systems, snakes are regarded as offering healing and transformative energies. Snakes hold value in several traditions, notably Native American, Meso-American, Greek, India, Chinese, Egyptian, and Eastern. All traditions, with slight variations, share the significance of rebirth, resurrection, initiation, and wisdom.
In Chinese astrology those born during Year of the Snake (myself included) are regarded as patient, wise, enigmatic, and intuitive, possessing compassion, clairvoyance, and charm. However, Chinese belief systems regard Snake People as needing to “learn lessons associated with forgiveness, superstitiousness and possessiveness.” (Andrews 360).
The Greeks associated strong beliefs in the snake’s powers of alchemy and healing. In alchemy they turned lead into gold. The god Asclepius became known as the god of healing with the snake and the dog as his two primary totems (perhaps an example of Joseph Campbell’s synchronicity). Hygieia, daughter of Asclepius, was also a goddess of health and hygiene and oftentimes depicted with the snake as her attribute. The snake has become associated with healing due to its ability to shed, thus renewing youth. Another Greek god, Hermes, carried a staff entwined by two snakes. This symbol carries over today as the popularly known symbol of medicine.
Hindu and Eastern traditions hold regard to the snake relating to sexual powers and the creative life force. The serpent fire, known as kundalini, lays coiled at the base of the spine in humans and as the person grows and develops, this energy releases up the spine, activating energy centers. This results in “opening new dimensions and levels of awareness, health, and creativity” (Andrews 360).
Native American healers used the venom of snakes in ceremony. Those undergoing this ceremony would be bitten several times and learned to transmute these poisons within their body. Those who survived ultimately experienced phenomenal healings.
When a snake sheds its skin, it is being reborn. The snake’s skin transforms into a milky color and its eyes cloud over. Mystics and shamans regarded the Snake as moving between the realms of life and death; as the eyes cleared the world was seen anew and from a new perspective (Andrews 361).
Snakes are also a primitive animal – survived since prehistoric times – with very basic instincts and a very simple brain. They maintain as close of contact with the earth as possible. They do not see very well, nor do they hear; rather they operate with incredibly keen senses of smell and the ability to detect the faintest of vibrations.
Snakes are rather delicate, in my opinion. Their spine runs the entire length of their bodies, consisting of thousands of tiny bones. When I handle a snake, I handle it quite gingerly, respecting their sensitive nature, sensitivity to touch, and delicate feel.
People often have the misperception that snakes are cold and slimy. They are, in fact, quite the opposite. Particularly constrictors, when healthy, are warm. Being cold-blooded creatures they respond to their environment, another indication of their overall sensitivity. Constrictors thrive in tropical environments and are more active when warm. They tend to hibernate when cold. They are dry and not slimy. In fact, their skin carries no oils. If a human were to brush their hand against dirt, residue would remain. Because a snake lacks oils, they do not pick up dirt, thus enabling them to slither their way through various wilderness terrain.
I approached my snake dreams from a Shamanic standpoint in order to gain understanding of their messages. I first considered the fear that arises from a striking snake. In real life I have been bitten twice in the past (by Jasmine when she mistakenly thought she was being fed). I recall how unnatural her speed seemed to be; certainly unnerving. In both instances she struck my hand, resulting in a constant flow of blood. I learned later from my exotic animal handler friend that snakes possess a certain component to their saliva that prevents the blood from clotting. I also went into a mild state of shock. Jasmine, in comparison, was quite harmless from other snakes, particularly larger constrictors or venomous breeds. Clearly I still maintained this fear in my dream of Sahara biting me.
In Shamanism there is a concept of dismemberment by animals relating to rebirth. In real life, this would be terrifying and likely to result in death. In the Shamanic dream realm, it can also be terrifying but the death is a needed one in order to result in rebirth. I compared the snake bite scenario to a type of animal dismemberment, a thought inspired by a Shamanic friend of mine. Considering the changes that were occurring in my life at the time and my connection with snake energy, this is not a stretch of the imagination.
The snake bite and Sahara’s pursuing me so aggressively could also suggest the need for a “wake up call” regarding my situation or circumstances in life. This requires realization, acknowledgement, and the willingness to be released from the paralyzing fear in order to implement and embrace needed change.
A website called snakedreams.org suggests significance to the right hand being bitten. This website suggests conflict regarding making the “right” decision – perhaps a preoccupation “with acting in fairness or maintaining a healthy transparency in a relationship.”
The representation and concept of transformation cannot be emphasized enough. Andrews’ Animal Totems suggests that when Snake comes into your life you can look for a rebirth into new powers of creativity and wisdom. The kundalini approach reiterates activating sexual drive, which results in more energy and allows for an increased ability to recognize and apply intuition and insight.
When an animal spirit or totem makes its presence known in one’s life, whether in the dream realm or the physical realm, Shamanism suggests observing the live animal. I have the fortune of having Snake with me in my home and we often spend time together as well as allowing me opportunity to observe her in her terrarium. In fact, since our “rehabilitation” session I have noticed an increased level of calmness and trust in both myself and in her behavior towards me. I do not think it coincidence to suggest that this calmness parallels my process of healing from the breakup and re-discovery/new discovery of myself. Within this strength is one’s perception of the situation.
A poem by Susan Kinsolving from Snakes: An Anthology of Serpent Tales offers an eloquent duality of snake as far as perception:
“Both spinal and fluid, the movements are undulating and minacious: sidewinding, concertina, constriction, coil, and strike. As a child, I ran home from my favorite place to play, under willows by a stream, where suddenly to my horror one came weaving through the water. The only poison was its presence, but that proved to be venomous enough to my sanctuary. So serpents remain with me: assailants ominous, though unlikely, but molting in my mind, mythically provoking. Cobra, boa, rattler, viper, Egyptian asp… (Lewis, Plimpton 100).”
While my own process of transformation is far from complete, I can assert that I feel a re-connection with Snake energy; an energy that had been absent from my life for a period of time. Just as Snake demonstrates with the cycle of shedding, transformation will always occur. I believe the secret to healthily moving through transformation is to accept it and approach it without fear; to know one has the tools necessary to move through this process.
Andrews, Ted. Animal Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2014. Print.
Lewis, Willee, George Plimpton. Snakes: An Anthology of Serpent Tales. New York: Willee Lewis, 2003. Print.
http://www.snakedreams.org. Web. Nov. 2014.